By Zenisha Gonsalves
What is it like to ski to the North Pole dragging a heavy load behind you? Where a wrong move can mean death, or losing a limb to frostbite? What is it like to undertake an expedition while squabbling with your sibling? What is it like to be on top of a mountain, far from the judgement of the world?
Tashi and Nungshi Malik at the North Pole.
Click here for more incredible photos of the twins’ adventures.
Meet Nungshi and Tashi Malik, who on April 21, 2015 completed the Explorers Grand Slam, by skiing to the North Pole. The Explorers (or Adventurers) Grand Slam is a challenge to reach the North Pole, the South Pole, and to climb the highest peak of each continent – the Seven Summits, which only around 44 people from around the globe have completed so far.
The 23-year-old twins – who are originally from Haryana, a state with one of the worst male-female ratios in the country (857 women for every 1000 men) – have often said that they were inspired by the cause of the girl child in India, and that they’ve hoped that their Mission2for7 (two sisters, seven summits) would inspire girls in India to take up mountaineering and achieve their goals. Earlier this year, they were made the brand ambassadors of Uttarakhand’s Beti Bachao Abhiyan (Save the Girl Child campaign).
Both sisters have a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from Sikkim Manipal University, and are now looking into studying Exercise and Sports Science in New Zealand. We spoke to them over email about climbing, their training routine, their future plans, acting aspirations and more. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
You’ve completed the Explorers Grand Slam by skiing to the North Pole. What did that involve, what did that moment feel like?
Tashi: We completed what is called the ‘last degree’ ski to the North Pole. We were dropped off at 89 degrees North, and had to ski to 90 degrees North (the northern most point on the planet where all meridians of longitude meet and where the only direction is south). We had to ski and carry about 136kg loads by sleds anchored to our waist. You can imagine the effort when this has to be executed in temperatures of an average of -30°C! How would you feel if you were locked inside a freezer at this temperature for a whole week? That’s how we felt!
Nungshi: The biggest challenge we faced was to negotiate many ‘leads’ (open water patches) where if you fall you would sink into the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean! These varied from one meter to several meters in width and we had a few near-death experiences when suddenly the ice under our feet started cracking open to reveal fresh lead! We know of so many fellow adventurers who lost a limb or two due to severe frostbite during similar expeditions.
In February 2012, Mt Kilimanjaro became the first of the Seven Summits that you climbed together. For how long before that had you been interested in mountaineering?
Tashi: For a year and a half before the Mt Kilimanjaro climb, our mom had been firmly saying, “Over my dead body” to our dreams of climbing Everest. We were certain that she wouldn’t relent. One day, we found ourselves near Kilimanjaro when we went to attend a field seminar in the neighbouring Rwanda, which shares its border with Tanzania, where Mt Kilimanjaro is located. We called dad and asked if we could at least climb Kilimanjaro, which incidentally is the easiest of the Seven Summits (although back then we hadn’t even heard of the Seven Summits). After Kilimanjaro, with a stroke of luck we managed to get mom’s “Just one more time and nothing after Everest” approval. Everest proved to be a game-changer, as we learned from fellow climbers about other landmarks, and Mission2for7 was born. Mom became reluctantly acquiescent, and we didn’t share the dangers or difficulties of any of our climbs with her, instead painting cosy pictures in our accounts.
What got you started in mountaineering? Was anyone in your family a mountaineer? How did you choose climbing, in particular?
Tashi: Interestingly, mountaineering was not even in our distant dreams, even though we loved the outdoors and sports in general. Our first exposure was purely for educational purposes, to enhance self-awareness and imbibe some leadership qualities through physically challenging activity.
Nungshi: Sometimes our latent potential and hidden interests are only realised by default. This is exactly what happened in this case. As soon as we started the first day of training in the Basic Mountaineering Course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, we felt our ‘Aha!’ moment. By the end of the course, we were pretty sure that we had found our deepest passion, our strongest calling. And we have never looked back.
What does it feel like to be on a climb? What do you love most about it?
Tashi: I feel closest to myself up on the mountain. There is this deeper spiritual connection, and heightened awareness of my own existence and my inter-connectedness and interdependence on the world around me. I also become aware of my strengths and weaknesses and am able to do lot of introspection and conversation with myself. And I feel liberated, to be who I am, without being judged by others.
Nungshi: I love the silence and majestic expanse and power of big mountains. In comparison, all the issues and problems of existence appear so petty. And when I am up against a mountain trying to reach its summit, nothing else seems to matter. There, it’s only about drawing on my best resources to overcome the challenge. It is also a huge boost to self-esteem – there’s a feel-good factor in the knowledge that what I accomplish on reaching a tough summit, only a few men or women dare to dream of or try to achieve. Being mindful of the unending prejudices and discrimination against the girl child, such accomplishments also give me a sense of victory on behalf of all the girls who are denied their basic human rights.
What is it like to go on expeditions with your sister as a companion?
Nungshi: Over the years, Tashi has generally acquired ‘psychological dominance’ over me. She can always get away with her demands, and though I do know that I am physically slightly stronger (with a 2 kg weight advantage), mentally, I lose out to her.
There is also a healthy spirit of competition between us. Once, in 2001, dad was unsuccessfully persuading us to jump off the 7-metre board in the swimming pool. While looking down into the pool, Tashi lost her balance and fell in. To dad’s amazement, within seconds of Tashi’s fall, I jumped in as well! Dad then realised that in any similar situation, he has to just get one of us to take the lead; the other one will automatically follow.
Tashi: Just as we are the best of friends, we can also be the worst of enemies – mom sometimes fears that if our vicious fights were to ever occur during a climb, we might push each other off the mountain!
In the last three years, you’ve climbed the Seven Summits and skied to the North and the South Pole. Considering you’re both still studying, will you continue to pursue climbing and expedition goals? What are your plans for the future?
Tashi: Our to-do list is packed! On one hand, we will continue to promote gender equality in India. For this we have started the NungshiTashi Foundation with the twin objectives of promoting mountaineering as a sport, and empowering girls through mountaineering and outdoor adventure. We have also delivered talks across India (including a TEDx talk in Delhi), and in several countries abroad such as the US, Brazil, Nepal and Chile, and plan to continue utilising part of our time for public speaking. We are now going to start work on writing a book about our journey, and hope to inspire the youth, especially girls. We don’t rule out making a movie based on our book, in which we will act!
Nungshi: Climbs and expeditions will continue for the rest of our lives. We see mountaineering as a journey into self-discovery – our favourite quote remains Edmund Hillary’s famous “We don’t conquer mountains but ourselves.” We want to establish a world-class Centre of Excellence in Mountaineering in India. We are also passionate about dance, and wish to devote a substantial part of our leisure time in learning various forms of dance in the coming months.
How do you train for an expedition?
Tashi: Our mantra is “prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. When you have to carry extremely heavy loads over long stretches, gaining altitude, braving strong winds and losing energy rapidly, you cannot afford to have your fitness not be at 100 percent.
Nungshi: Dad is our mentor and coach. While we focus on the actual hard work of physical training, he studies the peculiar requirements of preparing for each peak, makes out our weekly training programmes, and ensures we follow the schedule. Our training involves three aspects: endurance, aerobic, and strength training. It also involves finding a balance between conserving body weight and doing rigorous physical workouts. So we also take ‘mass gain’ products off the shelf in the market as it is not possible to gain weight rapidly with normal food when we are following such strenuous physical training regimens. In two months we lost 12kg each on Everest, and in two weeks we lost 6kg each in Antarctica!
What have your best moments been on an expedition?
Tashi: The happiest moments for us have been on two occasions. The first was when we stood on top of the world on Mt Everest, on May 19, 2013; and the second, when we unfurled the tri-colour at the North Pole on April 21, 2015.
Zenisha Gonsalves is an intern at The Ladies Finger and a student at St. Joseph’s College of Arts & Sciences, Bangalore.
Tashi and Nungshi Malik on Mt Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, in December 2014. That was the last of the Seven Summits they climbed. (All photographs courtesy Tashi and Nungshi Malik.)
After a climbathon in August 2013, at 21,000 ft.
At the South Pole! December 2014.
Horsing around at the South Pole.
The twins at a camp site in Uttarkashi, Dec 2013. In the background is Bandar Poonch, a major peak in the Garhwal division of the Himalayas.
Strength training at the college gym in preparation fro skiing to the North Pole, March 2015.
Training for the North Pole while at college in New Zealand, March 2015.
During training in the lower Himalayas below Mussoorie for the expedition to Antarctica, 2014.
The twins on Mt Everest in May 2013.
The twins pose for a photoshoot.
On a visit to Auckland sponsored by New Zealand Education, March 2015.